A professor of mine once gave a firm warning on the importance of triage. He explained, “Every year, I tell my class that each exam question is worth the same amount. And yet every year, I read the exams of students who wrote near-perfect and exhaustive answers to the first question, but who clearly did not leave enough time to answer the other two. It’s the product of an inherently flawed thought process: ‘If I just make the one answer perfect enough, it will make up for the others, despite the fact that they’re worth an equal number of points.’ Well, it won’t; it can’t, and at the end of the day, you’ll do poorly.”
This warning was stuck in my head as I watched the Dallas Cowboys’ 2013 draft, a draft that seemed as focused on perfecting the areas where the team already excels, rather than improving on the team’s glaring weaknesses.
The Cowboys are a team that finished 6th in the NFL in total offense and 19th in total defense in 2012. They’re a team that had the 11th ranked offensive DVOA and the 23rd ranked defensive DVOA. What’s more, if you break down the team’s offensive ranking, you’ll find that that the 2012 Cowboys ranked 3rd in the NFL in passing offense but only 31st in rushing offense. They also had Football Outsider’s 7th best passing offense, but only it’s 24th-ranked rushing offense.
I could get more granular with these numbers, but the takeaways are pretty clear: Based on 2012, the Cowboys’ defense needed much more help than the offense. And when evaluating the offense, the passing game was in far better shape than the run game. So how did the Dallas brain trust react to this information?
By using their three highest draft picks on offense, with two of those three players only serving to help Dallas’s passing attack.
So Why Two Receivers?
Those two players, TE Gavin Escobar in the second round and WR Terrence Williams in the third, are easily the most puzzling of the Cowboys’ selections in the draft.
That’s not to say that these two young men are not talented. Escobar, by all accounts, has the tools to succeed at the pro-level. And as an admitted t-shirt fan of the Texas Longhorns, I’ve witnessed firsthand how dangerous Williams can be against an unprepared secondary. But the Cowboys’ offense already features Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Jason Witten, and can boast one of the league’s consistently strongest passing attacks. With this personnel already under contract, both of these draft picks are absolute luxuries.
What’s more, Dwayne Harris stepped up at the end of the season and showed a great deal of potential as the team’s third wide receiver. And the story of the Cowboys’ 2012 training camp was how many of the promising young receivers the team would be able to hold onto. While I expect both Escobar and Williams to be quality players, Dallas’s front office was clearly augmenting an area where the team is already strong, rather than patching up its weaknesses.
The Tight End Situation
The selection of Escobar at tight end is particularly confusing. Jason Witten is undeniably one of the best TEs in football. He can catch; he can block, and even though he is a veteran, he put together a tremendous season in 2012. What’s more, Witten’s backup, James Hanna, a selection from last year’s draft, is another receiving tight end who also showed both potential and improvement as the season went on.
Why, then, did the Cowboys select yet another tight end who is essentially just a big receiver? Escobar is set to follow the mold of a Rob Gronkowski–an interesting offensive weapon designed to create receiving mismatches. He is not, however, very good at blocking.
Which is a shame, because that’s something the Cowboys could actually use from a tight end. Martellus Bennett never panned out as the big time pass-catcher the Cowboys hoped he would become, but he was an excellent blocker who both greatly aided the run game and provided vital extra pass protection when necessary. With the departure of both Bennett and John Phillips, the Cowboys have been short a dependable blocking TE. It was hardly the team’s most pressing need, but it was at least a hole in the foundation worth fortifying.
Instead, they now have three tight ends who are first and foremost receivers, in an offense that already has a potent pass attack, an offensive line that struggled to keep Romo from having to dodge the blitz, and one of the worst run games in the league in 2012. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the pressing needs on defense. Yes, the NFL is a passing league, but not at the total expense of the rest of the team.
It’s fair to point out that part of the reason for the selection of these players appears to be an attempt to help the team’s red zone troubles. Those failures near the goal line are a problem that I’ve complained about several times before. But I would argue that the team’s issues with scoring in the red zone are largely attributable to the deficiencies in Jason Garrett’s offensive schemes rather than any lack of quality personnel. To wit, the “12 and 13 packages” (two and three tight end sets) Garrett hopes to return to with Escobar never had consistent success when he attempted them with Martellus Bennett and Anthony Fasano alongside Witten. To that end, these two players taken on the second day of the draft are cold comfort, and largely bonuses at positions of strength rather than helpful bulwarks on Dallas’s roster.
The Bearded Infantry
Travis Frederick, on the other hand, may make a big difference in the team’s ability to turn progress into paydirt as the team’s center. Time and again, the Cowboys have struggled to get a push in short-yardage situations. As ESPN’s Todd Archer noted, from 2009-2011, “the Cowboys have been below average in third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 rushing, tying for 30th in the NFL” in the 2011 season. Those woes continued in 2012.
The fans have repeatedly seen Garrett air it out rather than attempt to run out the clock on the ground, and it’s not difficult to surmise that he does not trust his O-Line to get those hard yards in the shadow of the goal posts or the first down marker. In light of this recurring problem, I was extraordinarily pleased to hear BloggingTheBoys’ Joey Ickles note that in his tape review of the Cowboys top draft pick, “Almost every time I saw Wisconsin in short yardage at the goal line, [t]hey were running the ball behind Frederick.”
Indeed, as a boost to the Cowboys’ abilities as a team, Frederick is a far more justifiable pick than either Escobar and Williams. The Cowboys’ line has needed bolstering since long before Tyron Smith was drafted to help anchor it. What’s more, while Dallas often builds its roster from the outside in, this has resulted in a weaker interior offensive line. That weakness is a particular liability when defenses are increasingly focusing their blitzes on bull rushes and stunts up the middle.
Frederick is also reputed to have a very high “football IQ,” which will be vital if, as rumored, the Cowboys move to a more up-tempo offense. There are concerns about his athleticism, which could be particularly problematic if the Cowboys continue to shift toward a zone-blocking scheme, but overall I like Frederick a great deal as a player.
The Cowboys, of course, had to taint that excitement via the circumstances under which he was selected.
The most obvious issue in Frederick’s selection is the trade the Cowboys made before picking him. In principle, I agree with the idea of trading back for more picks in the early rounds, particularly in a draft where the talent distribution is considered to be fairly flat. I particularly like the idea of Dallas getting an extra “lottery ticket” when trying to evaluate talent.
But it’s hard to feel too good about what Dallas received from San Francisco to move back thirteen spots in the draft. That move only cost the 49ers a mere third round pick.
There are a number of different trade value charts out there, some of which have the Cowboys coming out ahead, some of which have them getting fleeced. But I look at Buffalo, who moved back eight spots (from 8 to 16) and received a 2nd and a 7th round pick in return. I see St. Louis, who moved back eight spots (from 22 to 30) and gave up their 7th round pick in exchange for a 3rd and 6th round pick. And I think that Dallas could have gotten more for their money.
But what’s more problematic than what Dallas did is what they didn’t do. Dallas could have taken Eric Reid at #18 to shore up a perennially lacking safety position, or Sharrif Floyd to bolster an aging D-Line at the same spot. They could have even made the same trade with San Francisco and taken Jonathan Cyprien, another safety who could provide help where it was sorely needed, at #31.
Then, instead of blowing their second round pick on a duplicative tight end, they could have likely held out for Frederick at #47 in the second round. Most outlets graded Frederick as a second or third round talent, and it’s probable that he would have been available at that point in the proceedings. Or, if Frederick were off the board, there would be another quality interior lineman prospect like Larry Warford available in a draft that was considered deep at the position.
Smarter Than the Room
Now maybe the Cowboys’ brain trust saw all of the offensive linemen coming off the board and did not want to risk losing their man. That’s an eminently defensible position, and I would certainly applaud the team for reaching a bit to help fix a longstanding weakness than go for the “value” pick at a position where the team is well-stocked as they did with their subsequent two picks.
But the fact remains–the Cowboys could likely have had their cake and eaten it too. There was only one other offensive lineman taken between the 31st and 47th picks.1 There’s a good chance that they could have taken a talented player in the first round and still had Frederick putting on the star, or at least still found a solid addition to their O-line in a draft with an abundance of talent at a non-marquee position.
All of these picks, where Dallas is drafting players higher than they were expected to go, reek of “we’re smarter than the room” thinking. This is problematic because first and foremost, the people who have looked at the issue have determined that over the long haul, no one is smarter than the room. That is to say, when evaluating draft classes over time, no team is better than any other at evaluating which players will succeed and which will fail.
What’s more, the Cowboys do not have the kind of track record to give them confidence that they are smarter than the room. There’s something to be said for not being a slave to the wisdom of crowds, but it’s disconcerting to see Dallas trying to beat the market when they’ve have trouble with that type of thinking in the past.
Frederick seems like a great player, but the process that went into obtaining him raises a number of red flags, as well as the specter of the opportunities that Dallas left on the table.
The Best of the Rest
Despite their mishaps in the top of the draft, I generally liked the Cowboys’ last batch of picks over the weekend.
J.J. Wilcox, a safety drafted with Dallas’s original third round pick, seems like a good prospect, particularly for a late third round selection. He helps fill a persistent position of need for the Cowboys; he has the right measureables for the safety spot, and he’s reputed to be a hard-hitting tackler, a necessity in Monte Kiffin’s defense. The downside is that Wilcox had only been playing safety in college for one year, having been converted from the offense. As such, it’s questionable whether he can provide any immediate help to the Cowboys’ D.
After that, every pick from the fourth round on is a veritable crapshoot, but I liked the selections nonetheless.
B.W. Webb, a cornerback taken in the 4th round, is a solid choice who should create some good competition in the secondary. Then, as much as I have cautioned against drafting RBs in the modern NFL, the fifth round is pretty much the perfect time to take a chance on a player, and Joseph Randle fits the bill. He’s an every-down type back who should be first in line to spell the oft-injured DeMarco Murray when necessary. He certainly comes at the right place and the right price. Finally, linebacker DeVonte Holloman is a project, but he’s also poised to become a contributor at special teams and may be able to give the team depth at the newly necessary strong side linebacker position. For all my complaints about the team’s first three picks, their ensuing selections, though less significant, appear to be sound.
Stocking the Defense’s Cupboard
But what isn’t sound is the Cowboys’ overall strategy at the draft. Looking at the numbers from 2012, it’s clear that the defense was in worse shape than the offense. The D could not produce turnovers, struggled to rush the passer, and in general had a suspect pass defense. The switch to Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli’s Tampa 2 defense was made to help alleviate these issues, but it also requires the team to add the type of players who can thrive in that system.
Instead, the Cowboys did not select a defensive player until their fourth pick in the draft, and each defensive player they selected is something of a project who is unlikely to be able to provide any sort of immediate help.
Meanwhile, every prognosticator in the country predicted the Cowboys would take a defensive lineman somewhere in the draft. And why not? With a switch to a new scheme, and a starting front four who are all nearly thirty, it makes sense to inject some new blood into the mix, particularly in order to find a true “under tackle,” one of the biggest cogs in Kiffin’s defense.
But yet again, the Cowboys stood pat, and left their fans wondering not only how the team would manage in the coming season, but also whether the front office was setting the team up for bigger problems down the line.
And what’s particularly troubling about this strategy is that it seems like history repeating itself. In the 2010 season, the Dallas Cowboys finished the year ranked 23rd in the NFL for overall defense. The team responded by bringing in a new defensive coordinator and a new system. But how did Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Jason Garrett handle the subsequent draft in the face of these glaring defensive needs? By taking an offensive lineman in the first round,2 and running an offense-focused draft that provided practically no help to the defense during the 2011 season. This contributed to the team essentially treading water on the defensive side of the ball in the ensuing two seasons,3 and I fear the same malaise could continue in 2013.
In fairness, there’s reason to expect the coming season to be different. The Cowboys went big on defense in the 2012 offseason: opening the wallet for Brandon Carr and cashing in the team’s first and second round picks in exchange for Morris Claiborne. The Cowboys’ pass defense still proved to be a liability, but hopefully with a year of development in Valley Ranch, both corners will shine in the coming season.
The Cowboys also drafted Tyrone Crawford, Kyle Wilber, and Matt Johnson in the third and fourth rounds of the 2012 draft to bolster the defense. Thanks to injuries and the learning curve, those three players were barely able to have any impact on the Cowboys fortunes last season. They may be able to help in a more substantial way in 2013. Moreover, regression to the mean suggests that despite the raft of injuries hindered the team in 2012, the Cowboys are likely to field a healthier D this year.
But the fact remains, the Cowboys have taken chances on players with injury histories like Bruce Carter, Sean Lee, and DeMarco Murray. And while those players have made substantial contributions when they’re in the lineup, they’ve also spent a good portion of the season healing up on the sidelines. The Cowboys’ defensive line is full of veterans; the few players behind the aging starters are unknown and untested, and Dallas still lacks a prototypical under tackle for the Tampa 2.
The Cowboys cannot reasonably bank on a defense filled with older players and the walking wounded to succeed without depth. They cannot rely on another class of year-old injured draft picks to breathe new life into the D. And they cannot expect to field a reliable defense over the long haul without finding more than one guy at the top of the draft to help on that side of the ball.
* * *
And so, it seems that the Cowboys have made the same error in judgment my professor warned us so strenuously about. Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Jason Garrett seem to think that if the Cowboys just continue to add to their already effective passing game, the rest of the team’s problems will sort themselves out.
This is the problem with a pure “Best Player Available” or “BPA” strategy for a team with a number of major weaknesses. If you ignore a team’s needs, you end up fielding a lopsided roster–a team that may excel in one facet of the game, but will be woefully thin in several others. And that kind of team cannot succeed.
It’s a failure in triage.
The Dallas Cowboys’ 2013 draft did bring some talent back to Valley Ranch. But, unfortunately, too many of the problems that have been plaguing the team for years now will persist, unaddressed. And all the fans can do is watch as the team’s needs, and their hopes, go unfulfilled for yet another season.
- Oakland selected OT Menelik Watson with pick 42.↵
- This is a move I don’t disagree with now, and didn’t disagree with then. The O-line has been problematic for more years than I would care to remember and the best legacy of the drafts under Jason Garrett will likely be the attention he paid to rebuilding the line.↵
- To be fair, they went from being 23rd in overall defense in 2010 to being 19th in 2011, a ranking that they maintained in 2012.↵